The totally inadequate efforts of Imperial Russia to establish an effective air service disappeared in the flames of the October Revolution. Experience of a sort was gained in the civil war that followed, and in the simultaneous war with Poland from 1918 to 1920.
During the 1920s, the Soviet Union attempted to establish an aviation industry and an air force. It was fortunate to have some excellent leaders, but development was always limited by the paranoid cruelty of dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin called forth the very best efforts from people under his command, and, initially, rewarded those who did well with promotions and privilege. Doing well, however, carried with it the hazard of being seen as a popular figure. Stalin did not tolerate any popular figures other than himself, and unhesitatingly removed them by assassination or by trials in which coerced confessions of treason would earn a death penalty.
This was the fate of many men who might have made a difference in the history of World War II had they been allowed to live and carry out their ideas. The Soviet Union possessed some first-rate thinkers who were also doers, men who would have been outstanding in any air force in the world. They included, among others, Generals Yakov Alksnis, Yakov Smushkevich, Mikhail Frunze, and Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevski, all of whom merit mention here, for had their ideas been followed, a German invasion of the Soviet Union might well have been avoided, or if begun, immediately defeated.
General Frunze was Chief of Staff of the Red Army and became a commissar for national defense. He argued that a massive industrial base was the first step in acquiring an air force, and that the armed forces should be mobile, fast, and powerful. After Frunze was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1925, he was succeeded by Marshal Tukachevski, who was the author of the concept of “deep battle” in which mobile forces were to break through enemy lines in the manner adopted by the Germans. Tukachevski developed the world’s first airborne forces, whose often filmed operations inspired imitators in Germany and the United States. A versatile man, he also created the Red Army’s first mechanized units. Stalin deeply distrusted him because of his previous association with the Czarist army, and readily accepted intelligence planted by the Germans that Tukachevski was a spy. He was arrested, tried for espionage, and executed in 1937, setting off the great purge that would slash through the Red military like a plague. About 75 percent of the Red Air Force’s senior officers were imprisoned or executed, and about 40 percent of the entire officer corps were eliminated. The survivors, as might be imagined, were terrified, and morale collapsed.
The Red Army Air Force under the command of Yakov Alksnis during 1931–1937 developed into a semi-independent military service with a combat potential, good training, and a logistics infrastructure spreading from European Russia into Central Asia and the Far East. Still, the Red Army Air Force exhibited marked deficiencies in several local conflicts (e. g., against the Chinese in 1929 and in the Spanish civil war, 1936–1939). In contrast, during the 1937–1939 air conflicts with Japan (China, Lake Khasan, Khalkin Gol) the Soviets effectively challenged the Japanese air domination and provided decisive close air support in the campaigns on Soviet and Mongolian borders. During the Winter War with Finland (1939–1940), however, the Red Air Force suffered heavy losses due to inflexibility of organization, its command-and-control structure, poor training of personnel, and deficiency of equipment.
He sponsored the introduction of the truly remarkable Tupolev TB-3, the world’s first four-engine monoplane bomber in squadron service. Although a force of several hundred aircraft was built up, it was not intended as a classical strategic bombing force in the manner advocated by Douhet, who actually had little influence on Soviet thinking. Alksnis simply saw the need for heavy bombers to complement the other Soviet forces. He was, unfortunately, a friend of Tukachevski, and was arrested on a false charge of treason in December 1937 but not executed until 1940.
Yet another leading light, Smushkevich, had perhaps the most remarkable career of all, including commanding the Soviet air units in Spain under the pseudonym “General Douglas.” This was a considerable force, amounting to more than 1,500 aircraft and 750 pilots. Smushkevich was responsible for defeating the Italians in March 1937 at Guadalajara during the Spanish Civil War with his ground attack operations. He then went on to take command of Soviet air units engaged in conflict with Japan in China and Manchuria. There with some 450 aircraft, in May 1939 he inflicted a sharp defeat upon the Japanese. (Here that air power had a tremendous influence on history, for the Japanese Army switched its support for imperial expansion from the north to the southwest.) In November of that year, he became Chief of the Air Forces of the Red Army. All of his past achievements did not protect him from responsibility for the debacle attending the German invasion of June 22, 1941, and he was shot on October 28, 1941. Stalin’s memory was long, but his gratitude was short.
The German/Italian intervention on behalf of the Nationalist forces was offset in part by the supply of aircraft and materials from France and the Soviet Union. The French government of Premier Leon Blum was sympathetic to the Loyalist cause, and sent a miscellaneous bag of about forty aircraft to Spain, under the nominal and idiosyncratic leadership of writer-philosopher André Malraux. Malraux was neither a pilot nor a soldier, but he had an international literary reputation and espoused the Loyalist cause. The value of the French equipment was much diminished because it arrived without armament, and supplies of spares were soon cut off when Britain and France were pressured into an arms embargo of the conflict.
It was far different with the Soviet Union, which very much wanted to see the Loyalist government remain in power, and, in exchange for the Spanish gold reserves, sent about eight hundred aircraft to Spain during the course of the war. The aircraft included 155 I-15s, 62 I-15bis, 287 I-16s, and 96 SB-2 bombers, all first-line aircraft in the Soviet Union. Also sent were some 3,000 people, including 772 pilots, some of whom arrived before their equipment and warmed to the task by flying missions in obsolete French-built Breguet and Potez aircraft of the Spanish Air Force. The Soviet Union also licensed the production of another 229 fighters (I-15s and I-16s) in Spain.
The Western media was convinced that the Soviet aircraft would be inferior, to the ludicrous extent that they called the SB-2’s “Martins” and indicated that the I-15 had been copied from a Curtiss fighter, while the I-16 had been copied from the Boeing P-26. To everyone’s surprise, the Russian aircraft proved to be superb, far superior to any on the Nationalist side for many months after the German and Italian forces arrived, and much better than the aircraft from which they were supposed to have been copied.
These first-rate Russian aircraft enabled the Loyalists to gain an air superiority that was maintained through mid-1937, when German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters came into service. (Three prototype Bf 109s had been tested in Spain earlier.) The Russian planes allowed the Loyalist air force to gain one of the biggest victories of the war in March 1937. A Nationalist force composed of four Italian motorized units, including the elite Littorio division and eighty-one light tanks, had broken through the lines near Guadalajara, northeast of Madrid. The assault became bogged down in the mud caused by a week of torrential rainstorms. The Loyalist air force reacted promptly, shooting up the enemy vehicles and killing many soldiers. This was a seminal experience for the Red Air Force, which adopted the “conveyor” tactic in which a steady stream of attack aircraft, flying in successive relays, maintained a continuous pressure from the air. On March 18 the Loyalists counterattacked, and the Italian infantry broke and ran, to the disdain (and ultimately the amusement) of their Spanish Nationalist comrades-in-arms.
For the Soviet Union, the experience in Spain provided invaluable combat training for later battles against the Japanese and Germans. For senior officers in those units, combat was, ironically, a relatively safe haven, for they were less likely to be consumed in the insane purges Stalin was visiting upon his officer corps. In Spain, the Red pilots adopted the German-inspired “finger-four” formation, but were forced to give it up and revert to standard “V” formations when they returned to Russia. In the curious sort of “political correctness” reigning in the Soviet Union during the days of the purge, adopting a foreign combat formation was tantamount to treachery. In terms of strategy and tactics, the Spanish Civil War confirmed the importance of air superiority, and spurred the development of a new series of fighters that would flow—just in time—from the Mikoyan-Gurevich, Lavochkin, and Yakovlev design bureaus.
The brutal dictator’s ire was not confined to military personnel, for Stalin jailed such prominent designers as Andrei Tupolev and Nikolai Polikarpov, whom he allowed to continue to work while incarcerated.
The Red Air Force had always received a reasonable share of the Soviet military budget. The Soviet Union, after some wistful attempts at an agreement with Germany before Hitler, understood that Germany was a primary threat, with Japan also a likely candidate. Under Stalin, the national policy was one of gradual acquisition of territory by threat or war, and he succeeded in taking parts of Finland, Poland, and Rumania plus all of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania before the German invasion. And perhaps saddest of all, Stalin destroyed his command structure by his ruthless elimination of the talented, patriotic men who tried to serve him well.
Somewhat surprisingly, and a tribute to Soviet engineers and designers, Soviet technology was not too far behind either the Germans or the Allies at the start of World War II. The deployed forces had not been modernized, but a series of fine aircraft were in the works. No coherent policy of long-range strategic bombardment had evolved, but the concept of using aircraft as an essential part of army ground forces was firmly implanted, which would be enough to defeat Germany in the long run.